BMCR 2023.01.38

Americana latine: Latin moments in the history of the United States

, Americana latine: Latin moments in the history of the United States. Rome: Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study, 2020. Pp. xviii, 477. ISBN 9781734018981

Andrew Dinan’s Americana Latine comes at a fortunate time, with classicists and Americanists alike beginning to explore the afterlives of antiquity in new ways. For far too long, classical reception in America simply meant examinations of the “founders” and the classics. Not so anymore. From new glimpses into the actual realities of classical learning in the classroom, to sustained focus on historically marginalized peoples and demographics—African Americans, women, Native Americans——today’s reception studies are not your grandfather’s classical tradition.[1]

Dinan pays particular attention to Latin texts written in, about, or by those who lived in the territories that now comprise the present-day United States. Americana Latine should be considered a modest complement to the oeuvre of Leo Kaiser, who, from the 1970s until his death in 2001, edited a variety of early American Latin disputations, declamations, letters, orations, and poems.[2] Like an American Mommsen, Kaiser even crowdsourced for a modest database with a bold name, CIGLA—the Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum Latinarumque Americae.[3]

Though almost every text in Americana Latine is already available in published form, readers will benefit from having them at hand in a single volume. There is no shortage of fascinating extracts. Neo-Latinity often lends itself to rhetorical excess, even on mundane topics. Therefore, not without some humor, we read particularly lively compositions about the Brooklyn Bridge or tobacco or even football. We also witness how writing in Latin can often become combative. A young Benjamin Rush takes delight in correcting the infelicities in his friend’s Latin letter, encouraging his counterpart to do the same.[4] Likewise, the eighteenth-century Protestant minister George Baxter responds with particular frustration to a Jesuit who had accused him of poor Latinity, paying back the favor by chronicling his correspondent’s slips of the pen: “And in your writings, indeed, there are many errors, although you are—as you say—a professor of rhetoric and the Greek language in Nimes. I was never a professor of rhetoric, yet I see your mistakes. How many errors could a critic or learned person find in your letters?”[5] As a complement to this light-hearted material, Americana Latine features more serious fare. We read a priest’s scathing indictment of the economic and social conditions of African Americans in the early nineteenth century, including under the auspices of the Catholic Church itself. The American Civil War, the Spanish Flu, a harrowing description of Jesuit leaders discussing parameters for selling slaves—all these important topics find a means of expression in the Latin language. The sheer breadth of sources is commendable.

Despite the variety of what it makes available, the framing and bent of Americana Latine provides an unsatisfying portrait of North American Neo-Latinity. Readers should be warned, for instance, that this anthology privileges Jesuit source material, giving the impression that North American Neo-Latin is primarily or predominantly a Catholic phenomenon. The fact that the anthology ends in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council obscures the reality that Latin did not fade out as a means of communication. There are numerous newspapers, speeches, letters, inscriptions, and novels in Latin that continue to be produced. In fact, these days, so-called “Living Latin” is one of the hottest fads in the Classics world. It is therefore mind-boggling that the publisher of this anthology, the Paideia Institute, would have allowed this terminus.

Methodologically, Americana Latine does not achieve perfect clarity. Dinan reassures readers, both in his introduction and the back cover blurb, that he avoided “Latin texts that were composed primarily for school exercises” and instead focused on those “in which Latin has been employed for the purposes of everyday communication.” Prima facie, this makes perfect sense. An anthology of schoolroom compositions like Roma in Italia est would have made for dry reading. On closer inspection, however, the distinction proves specious, even counterproductive. Arguably, the central hub of American writing in Latin until quite recently was at schools, where students and teachers composed orations, poetry, disputations, and letters as part of a culture, in and outside the classroom, of oratory. In other words, school exercise and everyday communication were not dichotomies, but often went hand in hand. To this day, school archives contain some of the richest untapped Neo-Latin sources: they should not be discounted.

There are other quibbles a reasonable reader might introduce. Americana Latine often fails to cite the relevant scholarly literature that best frames the source selections, the endnotes are sporadic, and the classical allusions seemingly cited at random.[6] More substantively, while anthology rightly highlights Native American engagements with Latin, it flattens out the complexity of colonial education. Granted, the anthology’s sources do touch upon important topics in indigenous history, such as the dispossession of Native land. By and large, though, the work presents Native Americans as subjects of apparently benevolent missionaries, who are perfectly comfortable speaking for and about Native Americans. The only source in Americana Latine authored by a Native American is a 1678 funerary poem.[7] Of the handful of known Latin sources penned by Native Americans, this is perhaps the least interesting one. A more stimulating alternative might be Caleb Cheeshateaumauk’s 1663 Latin letter to Robert Boyle (not an “oration,” as Dinan claims), the subject of an important reinterpretation.[8] Or perhaps the scraps of Latin verses (school exercises, to be sure!) that educators had Native students copy out and then sent around as tokens, proof apparently that the colonial project was working.[9] Then, too, maybe John Mettawan’s 1735/6 Latin letter to the New England Company, which so impressed the commissioners that they offered to cover all his tuition expenses to attend Harvard.[10] Any of these sources may have gotten closer to the truth of the sometimes devastating, sometimes empowering project of classical education in early America. Americana Latine, intentionally or not, reduces The Harvard Indian College (as it was called at the time) to a footnote, an aberration—in effect, a colonial curiosity. But the institution ties into the uncomfortable reality that so much of the classical education in the early American period relied on rhetorical appeals—and often broken promises—to offer instruction to Native Americans. Many grammar schools and colleges would not have survived or even have been created were it not for this plea to educate Native Americans. Generations of English boys mastering the Classics in New England benefitted from such fundraising. That’s the fraught story of North American Neo-Latinity that we must come to terms with.

Despite the shortcomings, Americana Latine still stands as a welcome addition to other sourcebooks of Neo-Latin texts across the globe. American Neo-Latinists, as Meyer Reinhold aptly pointed out decades ago, have always faced the double whammy of skepticism.[11] Historians of the United States, largely unprepared for the polyglot realities of the early modern—and modern—world, all too frequently shrug their shoulders at non-English sources. Meanwhile, classical philologists are often uninterested in the humble Latinity of postclassical sources. Because of this, even substantial efforts to edit North American Neo-Latin often fall on deaf ears.

Classicists and Latin instructors may well find useful material in Americana Latine to bring into their classrooms, though they will have also to shoulder a considerable amount of interpretive work to make sense of the underlying sources and place them more aptly in their temporal, intellectual, social, and cultural contexts.



[1] Emily Greenwood, “The Politics of Classicism in the Poetry of Phyllis Wheatley,” in Ancient Slavery and Abolition: From Hobbes to Hollywood eds. Richard Alston, Edith Hall, and Justine McConnell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 153-180; Caroline Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750-1900 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007); Margaret Malamud, African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism (London: Bloomsburg Publishing, 2019); Theodore Delwiche, “And why may not I go to College? Alethea Stiles and Women’s Latin Learning in Early America,” Humanistica Lovaniensia 70, no. 2 (2021): 305-318; David Lupher, Greeks, Romans, and Pilgrims: Classical Receptions in Early New England (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2017); Joanne van der Woude, “Indians and Antiquity: Subversive Classicism in Early New England Poetry,” The New England Quarterly 90.3 (2017): 418-441; and Craig Williams, “The Latin Language and Native Survivance in North America,” American Journal of Philology 143.2 (2022): 219-246.

[2] Among many others: Leo Kaiser, Early American Latin verse, 1625-1825: An Anthology (Chicago: Bolchazy- Carducci Publishers, 1984); Leo Kaiser, “The Oratio Quinta of Urian Oakes, Harvard 1678,” Humanisica Lovaniensia 19 (1970): 485–508; Leo Kaiser, “Feriis Festisque Diebus: The Salutatory Oration of Elisha Cooke, Jr., 7 July 1697,” Harvard Library Bulletin 28 (1980): 380–90; Leo M. Kaiser, “John Leverett and the Quebec Expedition of 1711: An Unpublished Oration,” Harvard Library Bulletin 22 (1974): 309–16.

[3] Leo Kaiser “Latin Epitaphs for CIGLA, I,” The Classical Journal (Nov. 1955) vol. 51, no.2, 69-80, “Latin Epitaphs for CIGLA, II,” The Classical Journal (Dec. 1955) vol. 51, no. 3, 141-144, “CIGLA, II [Continued],” The Classical Journal (Mar. 1956), vol. 51, no.6, 294-301, and “CIGLA, II [Concluded],” The Classical Journal (Apr. 1956) vol. 51, no.7, 342-344.

[4] Americana Latine, 108-112.

[5] Americana Latine, 103. The above is my own translation.

[6] The discussion of Native American Latinity makes no mention of the most apposite and recent appraisal of the topic, namely Lisa Brook’s discussion of the Harvard Indian College in her Bancroft prize-winning book Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018). Likewise, the discussion of Francis Daniel Pastorius curiously omits reference to the most relevant contextualization of the German Pennsylvanian’s humanism, namely Anthony Grafton, “The Republic of Letters in the American Colonies: Francis Daniel Pastorius Makes a Notebook,” American Historical Review 117 (2012): 1–39.  Examples of this sort could easily be multiplied.

[7] Americana Latine, 86-87.

[8] Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, 72-106.

[9] For a photo and translation of the letter, see Linford D. Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 52-54.

[10] The Dartmouth College Archives contains examples of this sort. On the uses and practices of writing instruction among Native Americans in the colonial period, see Hilary E. Wyss, English Letters and Indian Literacies: Reading, Writing, and New England Missionary Schools, 1750-1830 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[11] Meyer Reinhold. See Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), 17.